Review of Ooku the Inner Chamber, vol. 2

Posted by on December 8th, 2009 at 1:45 PM

?okuThe Inner Chamber, Vol. 2; Fumi Yoshinaga; Viz; 200 pp., $12.99; B&W, Softcover; ISBN: 9781421527482

I continue to be baffled by the bland critical reception to Fumi Yoshinaga’s ?oku. The most recent review I’ve seen, for example, is Johanna Draper Carlson’s, where she says the book has “the potential to make fans of even more manga readers,” and praises the “convenient fantasy layer,” which she says “insulate[s] the reader” from the painful aspects of the story.

Not that that’s not a valid response but…am I the only one who thinks this is a work of fucking genius? And a brutal work of genius at that. Certainly, I didn’t feel insulated; on the contrary, to me the story, shot through with abuse, murder, and pain, was ruthless in a way that makes both “violent’ Western mainstream titles and “honest” Western autobio exercises seem more than a little ridiculous.

Each volume of ?oku tells a different story set in an alternate-past Japan, where a 17th century plague killed most of the young men. The main character in this second book is Arikoto, a Buddhist abbott. When he comes to pay his respects to the ruling Tokugawa clan, his unusual beauty catches the eye of the shogun’s foster-mother, Lady Kasuga. She kidnaps him and forces him to become a catamite for the shogun, spending the rest of his life in the Ooku, or inner chamber — the shogun’s seraglio.

The suggestion of scads of pretty men waiting to be raped suggests a kind of yaoi fever dream. But though Yoshinaga is certainly capable of enjoying that sort of thing (see her series Gerard and Jacques), her goals here are somewhat different. The world of the ?oku isn’t a gay goof; it is, rather, almost unspeakably cruel. Lady Kasuga is one of the most terrifying characters I’ve read in fiction — she kills with neither fanfare nor compunction. Her quietly lip-smacking amusement after one heinous deed — captured in Yoshinaga’s deft, sparse lines— is positively diabolical.

ooku(evil)

Which isn’t to say that Kasuga’s the villain exactly; Yoshinaga is too subtle a writer to break things into good guys and bad guys. One of the most sympathetic character in the book commits a murder as cold-blooded as any of Kasuga’s. And Kasuga’s cruelty, for that matter, comes out of her love for the shogun and for the country. The volume opens with a scene that shows her almost crippling grief at the loss of her foster-son. Again, Yoshinaga is a master of facial expression; Kasuga is placed dead center in the panel, eyes staring, mouth open — she looks as if she’s just seen the end of the world.

ooku(grief)

You might think that the point here is to humanize Kasuga; to show that underneath her cruel exterior is human emotion — or, perhaps, to show that her cruelty is born out of pain. But Yoshinaga takes neither tack. She does suggest, in a lovely sequence, that hurting others because you yourself are hurt is shameful…but she never judges Kasuga, or, indeed, any of her characters. A land where plagues ravage people, and the powerful murder the weak, and the innocent suffer — and, for that matter, inflict suffering — isn’t really a just place, after all. The best you can hope for here, Yoshinaga seems to say, is mercy and, if you’re very lucky, perhaps love. That’s not so different from our world, of course, which is why, for all its period trappings and “thous” and fake history, Ooku feels more familiar than foreign, and not much like fantasy at all.
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For those interested, my review of the first volume of Ooku is here.

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8 Responses to “Review of Ooku the Inner Chamber, vol. 2”

  1. DerikB says:

    That link to the review of volume 1 doesn’t work.

  2. Kristy Valenti says:

    Fixed.

  3. I agree. Ooku is friggin’ amazing.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Yeah; I mean obviously someone liked it — they gave her that big award for it in Japan and everything. It seems generally underloved over here, though.

  5. […] Lorena Nava Ruggero on vol. 8 of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (i heart manga) Noah Berlatsky on vol. 2 of Ooku the Inner Chamber (The Comics Journal) Connie on vol. 7 of Real (Slightly Biased Manga) Snow Wildsmith on vol. 1 of […]

  6. […] Lorena Nava Ruggero on vol. 8 of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (i heart manga) Noah Berlatsky on vol. 2 of Ooku the Inner Chamber (The Comics Journal) Connie on vol. 7 of Real (Slightly Biased Manga) Snow Wildsmith on vol. 1 of […]

  7. dgillespie says:

    Hear, hear! The quality of the art, the character development and the storytelling put Ooku in a whole different class from Yoshinaga’s former series. Ooku is her masterpiece…so far.

  8. Noah Berlatsky says:

    There’s actually a very enthusiastic review by Danielle Leigh over at Comics Worth Reading. Thanks to Johanna for the link.